Dixie Rock: 25 years climbing in popularity

04/01/2014 6:35 PM

04/01/2014 6:36 PM

Celebrating the 25th anniversary of its founding in 1989, this past weekend’s Dixie Rock 25 indoor climbing competition at the Chapel Hill Community Center featured an ’80s theme, complete with trivia quiz and even a Best Spandex contest. Dozens of climbers, fans, and spectators donned their best spandex, ranging from neon hues to Disney Princess prints and silver metallic leggings.

It was fortunate for everyone present that the Dixie Rock wasn’t founded 10 years earlier. the Commemorative display of polyester and the prevalence of powder-blue leisure suits simply might have been too much to endure.

Staged this Friday and Saturday at the Chapel Hill Community Center off South Estes Drive, the Dixie Rock remains the oldest indoor climbing competition in the United States.

With three different divisions and enviable prizes in each division, a separate children’s competition, raffles, trivia contests, the fun-filled weekend has become a proud and enduring element in Chapel Hill Park and Recreation’s menu of events.

In the Dixie Rock, climbers scaling holds affixed to simulated rock faces on the facility’s gymnasium walls began preliminary rounds this past Friday night. The top climbers in each division were invited back to the final round on Saturday night.

Various climbing routes ran the height of the 35-foot high textured walls on one end of the Community Center gym. Holds reflected various degrees of difficulty across the breadth of the entire climbing wall according to their size and distance from one another.

Event director Sarah Wolfe was proud of the high turnout, likely bolstered by the anniversary.

“We had a lot more pre-registration,” she said. “I was really pushing our goodie bags that you would only get if you pre-registered. We had 73 people registered as of (Friday) night.”

The silver anniversary was even enough to lure the event’s founder, longtime Dixie Rock director and Parks and Recreation assistant director Bill Webster into the climbing competition.

“It’s the 25th, so I said, ‘Why not?’” Webster said. “This will be the first year I’ve climbed. I’ve always been too busy.”

Having seen at least half of the Dixie Rock’s 25 incarnations either as a climber himself or as member of a family that has supplied more than its share of acclaimed young climbers, Craig Wagner said that the industry has really exploded.

“This competition has been pretty consistent,” said Wagner 46, “but when I started, there just weren’t that many gyms. Now there are tons of gyms that aren’t in basketball facilities or open just four days a week.”

Wagner added that supporting a family of young competitors just a decade ago meant a lot of traveling.

“There were a few competitions, but they were really spread out,” he said, “so you had to drive great distances to get to nice gyms. There was one in Durham that wasn’t anything really special ... but if you wanted to go to a really nice one, you had to go to Greensboro.

“Places like the Triangle Rock Club (in Morrisville) have created hordes of really, really talented young climbers. In the old days, the kids were the weaker ones, now they’re like geniuses. They’ve got coaches, nice indoor climbing facilities, and bouldering. It’s made a huge difference.”

To wit, of the six men and women posting a top-three finish in the men’s and women’s most competitive “Open” division, only one of the six was older than 18. Prominent among them was the top finisher in the men’s open bracket, 14-year-old Kai Lightner.

“Kai has competed in the World Youth Championships,” Wolfe said. “He wasn’t going to be able to make it because he had a photo opportunity with a national magazine, but the weather was going to be bad this weekend, so he ended up coming here instead.”

Lightner, who lives in Fayetteville, had just returned from competing in Canada with the U.S. Junior Climbing Team. His climbing career started when he was seen climbing a basketball backboard pole by a woman who told him he should try rock climbing.

“I’d been with the U.S. team before, ebut I’d never been old enough to travel,” Lightner said Saturday. “We’ll be competing in Australia later this year.”

Even at age 14, Lightner had enough experience to speak nostalgically about the Dixie Rock, which was his very first competition.

“That was back around seven or eight years ago,” he said. “My first year, I thought the wall was so tall, and now I come back and it just doesn’t seem as tall. It’s really strange.”

Bouldering also made its presence known at the Dixie Rock 25, thanks in no small part to the opening and influence of the new bouldering center Progression Climbing in Chapel Hill.

“We have different route setters this year,” Wolfe said. “I think we have more people who are boulderers setting routes instead of just climbers. Rodney Biddle from Progression Climbing is a route setter.”

Focusing exclusively on bouldering, Progression Climbing recently opened its doors to the public in Chapel Hill behind Ram’s Plaza at 1713 Legion Road

For more information about the new Progression facility founded and operated by Biddle, climbers can call 919-904-7217, email info@climbprogression.com, or visit its website: http://www.climbprogression.com. The gym also has a “Progression Climbing” Facebook page, said Biddle .

For those looking to learn more about climbing before the Dixie Rock embarks on its next quarter-century in 2015, introductory climbing and belaying classes are offered through Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation. Also, drop-in open climbing is available at the Community Center for climbers ages 6 and older.

For further information, visit the Chapel Hill Community Center at 120 South Estes Drive or call them at 919-968-2790. For more information on the Dixie Rock, visit www.townofchapelhill.org/dixierock or call Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation at 919-968-2784.

For now, the spandex can go back into mothballs and cedar chests for another 25 years. But don’t throw away the parachute pants and shoulder-pads quite yet. Dixie Rock 50 will be here before you know it.

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